Juxtaposition: A Few Comments on Craft

by Tina Barr

While fashions in poetry shift, the imagination can still be said, as Eliot long ago suggested, to amalgamate disparities. The imagination puts pressure on connections that we might not otherwise see, in logical or rational frames of reference. We can look at juxtaposition as a way to enlarge the circle the poem makes. We are delighted by juxtaposition, whether Williams puts together chickens and red wheelbarrows or Stevens in “Of Mere Being” puts a “palm at the end of the mind”…“in the bronze décor,” and “a gold-feathered bird” inside the palm. The poem does not explain why “the bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.” The poem merely asserts the bird’s presence. Current poetry often discloses its purposes, without the indeterminate being allowed space. Indeed, one reading is all that is often required.

But artists create arenas of particularity, a signature, or style that in its idiosyncrasy eventually becomes recognizable. A Basquiat painting is its own arena. To understand it, the viewer accustoms herself by looking over time, and enters its coded world. Poetry can be a coded language, and only by solving its mysteries over and over, through time and our own changes, can we really come to know a particular poem. I love teaching poetry because I relearn and rethink poems that stand up to rigorous analysis. I am as impressed with Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Venus’-flytraps,” as I was when I first read it in the mid-90s. He layers or juxtaposes a number of elements that create a whole, in the voice of a five- year-old: 1. the flowers of the title, which “have women’s names / With mouths like where / babies come from,” 2. “the eyes / of men hiding in boxcars,” and “what a train did to a cow,” 3. “the bees…that Live in little white houses,” 4. that his “mama says I’m a mistake. / That I made her a bad girl” and 5. That his “playhouse is underneath / our house & I hear people / Telling each other secrets.” The poet’s juxtapositions tell the story, and the poem requires that we solve its mystery.

Juxtaposition, like metaphor, thrills us because it allows us to compare or view one thing with or against another, enriching the way we see. It's a kind of cubist pressure, in that the imagination breaks down how we normally see and reconstructs our vision in different ways. On my last visit to the Asheville Art Museum, I noticed the way in which certain painters changed, radically, what they put into the frame of the painting, or the perspective itself, so we were looking at odd angles. I really liked a painting that deconstructed the theme of odalisques, so one could not help threading through the mind of Manet, Ingres, Matisse. The painting doubled and moved around an odalisque, so it brought into the imagination a history, starting with the mother goddess figurines of the ancient world, and brought them all the way into the present, where we can’t take anything too seriously, but it doubled and shifted and multiplied the image.

I love narrative, and when one makes a juxtaposition, it creates a story, essentially. A is connected to B. Often there is a visual narrative, purely visual, before we create a story. Then, of course, surrealists make nonsensical juxtapositions that create feeling, and non-narrative or language poets like Matthea Harvey can make language palpable and active. Juxtaposition can reach into places we can’t go with our analytical minds.

In a poem titled “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” Charles Wright explores a world that is not literal. The poem inhabits a “meta” space. It’s the job of literary critics to find ways to describe the space the poem creates; for the sake of convenience I would describe it as the geography of the imagination itself, the abode of Williams or Stevens:

Up where the narrow bodies lie, suffused in sundown,
The children of God are stretched out
under the mountain,
Halfway up which the holy city stands, lights darkened.
Above the city, the nimbus of nowhere nods and retracts.

How is it that everyone seems to want
either one or the other?
Down here the birds leap like little chipmunks out of the long grasses.
Wind piddles about, and “God knows” is the difficult answer.

The poem refuses to account for itself, to usher us in by telling us how to read it, presenting us with material that we can read once and congratulate ourselves because we understand it, or, conversely, decline to present us with any meaning at all, thus allowing us to believe we are fashionably avant-garde, while we may not be able to internalize any experience at all, linguistic or otherwise. This is language poetry that disappears once one moves from one line to the next. But Wright, through his juxtaposition of the spatial “up,” with the contradictory idea of “where the narrow bodies lie,” keeps positioning us betwixt and between, “the nimbus of nowhere,” and somewhere else. Are the “narrow bodies” dead? Are the “nimbus” clouds? What is the “one or the other”? Does he refer to life or death? But when we reach the birds, who become chipmunks, an animate or personified “wind,” and a comic reflection on the expression “God knows,” we are delighted, confused and, for myself, gratified by the poem’s refusals, its puzzle.

The poem continues, perhaps elaborating on the idea of the “narrow bodies”:

The children of Heaven, snug in their tiny pockets,
Asleep, cold,
Under the Purgatorial hill.
Soon they’ll awake and find their allotted track
up to the upside down.

Or not. The gravetree estuaries against the winds of Paradise.
Unutterable names are unpinned from its branches.
A couple
Float down to this pocket, and others float down to that pocket.
Star shadow settles upon them,
the star shine so far away.

I can speculate on the juxtapositions. Are the children inside their coffins? The word “track” sends me in the direction of animal tracks, or paths. The tree, which leans over a grave, is somehow connected to bodies of water, or its movement is like a body of water, breaking against the wind, if “estuaries” is being used as a verb. The “names” that are unpinned, do they belong to the children? What is the relationship of the “couple” to the children? And, juxtaposed, or measured alongside the mention of stars, how can I not conflate these beings with their disappearance “up” into the stars. I am granted a vision by the poem, but also a series of conflations, or narrative argument.

Poems can go into the neglected places inside us, and stir up the pool. That’s what we want, really, to be undone. In his poem, “At First I Thought,” from his 2013 Darkness Sticks to Everything, Tom Hennen renders a blue jay into a leaf, as well as a broken piece of sky:

The blue jay
Was the last leaf
To fall
When it rocked
From side to side
And slowly tumbled
To land on the snow
Weightless
As a piece of sky
Broken off
The cold blue place
Where winter keeps
The number zero.

Tina Barr’s book of poems, Pink Moon, has just been released as the Inaugural Winner of the Editor’s Choice Award from Jacar Press. Previous books include Green Target, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Brockman-Campbell Award, The Gathering Eye, winner of the Tupelo Press Editor’s Award, and Kaleidoscope. She’s received fellowships from the NEA, The Tennessee Arts Commission, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and The MacDowell Colony.

Editor’s Note: In addition to her other work with poets, Tina Barr is an ongoing member of the Great Smokies Writing Program faculty.

Aspects of this post were updated in April of 2024.